Q&A: How do I stop my child crying in the night?

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Q: My partner works away on a 2/2 roster. We have two children, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. About five weeks ago Dylan, the three-year-old, started waking up in the middle of the night crying uncontrollably. He keeps asking for me even though I am there, and will not stop crying for a good 20 minutes. This first started when my partner came back from work and on the first night when Dylan went to climb in bed with us, he noticed his dad in bed and started crying and not wanting him to be there. The situation is getting worse as he is now becoming very scared of being away from me. Even though he was previously going to sleep on his own, in his own bed, I have now started going to bed with him again as he refuses to do so on his own. My partner calls us on every smoko break and always talks to Dylan over the phone, but it doesn't seem to work. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

A: There seems to be a few different issues in your question. First of all, it sounds like a couple of sleep issues are concerning you. Dylan's night waking (wanting you even though you are there) sounds like a night terror. Night terrors are very distressing for parents but don't seem to be for kids - they have no memory of them! Night terrors are quite common in three year olds. They occur in the few hours after the child goes to sleep. There's not much you can do about them at the time of the night terror, other than sit with your child until it passes. Some experts suggest not waking your child as it might make the episode last longer. This advice can be unrealistic when there are other children in the house who you don't want woken up. That said, it can be difficult to wake a child during a night terror so don't worry if you can't wake your child - just cool him down if he feels hot and sit with him until he's fully asleep again. Causes of night terrors can be being too hot in bed, over tiredness and change in routines. Both of my children had night terrors when they were three and I definitely found that over tiredness and being too hot in bed were factors.

As mentioned, nightmares tend to occur later in the night or in the early hours of the morning, and you can usually very easily wake a child from a nightmare (or they wake themselves). Children can often tell you they have had a bad dream and even three year olds can tell you something about it, like "there was a monster". Nightmares do seem to be more common when kids are overtired but are also associated with scary books, movies or games or something upsetting that has happened. It sounds to me that Dylan is having night terrors rather than nightmares.

The second issue related to sleep sounds like separation anxiety. A bit of separation anxiety is quite normal in three year olds. It sounds like Dylan's need for you is more than usual at the moment though, and that you are worried about why that is. Unfortunately, like all anxieties, separation anxiety can be made worse by parents trying to make it better! No parent likes to see their child upset, so they give in to whatever the child seems to need (in your case going to bed with him). While doing this makes things easier in the short term, it won't help long term. Dylan needs to remember (by experience) that he is OK when you are not with him. Like any anxiety, separation is best dealt with by (gently) facing the issue head on. I would suggest a few things:

  • Start slowly to move towards Dylan going to bed himself again. Stop going to bed with him. If possible (it's not always possible with other children to look after) you could start by sitting on the bed with him for a few nights, then move to sitting by the door then out of the room (take a book or something so you don't get too fed up). If it's not possible to do this because of other kids' needs, it's OK to just stop going to bed with him and face the upset for a few nights. If you do this one, make sure Dylan stays in his room and go into him if and when you hear him get distressed. Help him calm down (see next point) and then leave him again.
  • Give Dylan some skills to help him calm himself down at bedtime. Skills suitable for a three year old are deep breaths, thinking of a nice story, looking at a book, listening to relaxing music, a muscle relaxation (let me know of you want more details on this).
  • Use a star chart for going to bed without you. Star charts work well because they give some incentive to do something difficult and through this the child learns that they CAN DO IT. Start with a small reward after the first night, then three nights, then seven.
  • Make sure Dylan has a good routine to wind down for sleep. A book, a massage, a cuddle and then time for sleep. There are some good sleep products available to help (I've actually got a website called www.sleepshop.com.au which might be useful).

It sounds likely that Dylan got a shock and a fright seeing his dad in bed and perhaps he hadn't realised he would be home? It's possible that his dad looked scary in the night time. Did Dylan come in to your bed because he got a fright or had a bad dream in his own room?

Thinking back to when it all started, did anything else happen? Can you recall an illness or argument or anything else out the ordinary? Did his dad tell him off or behave in a way that made him feel scared of him? To our adult minds we might not realise the things that scare kids - I know of one child who got really scared of his dad when he got up one night and saw his dad watching a scary alien movie. In the kid's half-asleep mind, the whole scene got mixed up and the result was a good few weeks of being afraid of his dad. I don't have an easy answer for this one, given that I don't know the answer to these questions. My suggestion is to give it time and make sure that there are lots of fun family times when dad is home. Maybe give the daily phone calls to Dylan a miss for now (too much pressure for a three year old) and encourage your partner to engage with Dylan in different ways ... like sending him a letter, postcard or photo just letting him know "I am thinking of you and love you".

One final thought: Is it possible that Dylan feels closer to you when your partner is away, and that your partner coming back can have him feeling left out and jealous? This can be a tricky relationship dynamic in FIFO families. I know a lot of mums who relax the rules when dad is at work. A result of his can be confused and resentful kids. The best solution to this is to keep routines and expectations of kids the same when dad is away as when his is home. I know this is easier said than done, but I think it is a very worthwhile habit to get into when kids are young.

I hope all this helps! Let me know if you would like further information.

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To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.